I was in North Carolina this weekend, visiting my grandfather. He will be 89 in February, and his lungs are slowly wearing themselves out, making it harder and harder for him to diffuse oxygen. He used to build boats, and still has a boatworks, even though all the boats are gone. Now his dock is for other people's boats and for visiting grandchildren to sit on and breathe slowly and take in the sky.
My grandfather contains volumes of poetry, and because our conversations frequently involve long pauses for reflection, it's hard to tell when he starts speaking again if he's reciting some verse stored in the vaults of his brain or if he is dispensing wisdom in his own words. At the dinner table, amidst discussions with my three-year-old cousin about confining the macaroni to her plate, he will turn to my aunt and say, "Lili, are you preparing a face to meet the faces that you meet?"
Ehren, the three-year-old, takes no notice of this, placing her macaroni exactly where she pleases. But I notice this is the second time he's quoted Mr. Eliot this weekend, and this same poem no less, so I call him out on it. "What's with all the T.S. Eliot this weekend?" He just smiles at me and chuckles. I know this poem well, I remember picking it apart in school, and it doesn't escape me that it is about growing old, about dying. What seems a propos of nothing is rarely so with Grandpa Stern.
Later the two of us are sitting in the living room, watching baseball. He tells me, "this is the blessing and the curse about the situation in which I find myself -- my mind is okay, but my body is getting weak.
For the sword outwears its sheath,And the soul wears out the breast,And the heart must pause to breathe,And love itself have rest."
This is Lord Byron, but at the time I just knew it was poetry.
I have nothing to offer him in response to this, I have no wisdom about this business of growing old, of feeling the full measure of my own life. So I just listen, sit with him, pay attention. I'm not sure this is enough, but it's what I have. I admire him deeply for many things, for being with us when he's with us, for looking ahead with his inquisitive and poetic mind, for insisting that we leave some of the figs on the tree in his front yard for the birds because this is the deal he's struck with them.